Guest Post · yoga

Negotiating Ashtanga: Belly, butt, boobs & breath VS Abs, arms & enlightenment

“You know Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys?” my friend said. I hadn’t heard that but I wasn’t surprised because it had struck me as designed for men, given all the upper body strength it requires. Arm support and abdominal strength help one jump back and forth (or walk lightly) for the sun salutations at the beginning, and in the vinyasas [youtube that precede many of the postures. I have since learned that the origins of the practice are not so clear, and I know its important to remember that all traditions have complex histories: they grow and change. (Neglecting that consideration is part of the reasoning fallacy of appeal to tradition.) Perhaps part of Ashtanga’s development was to address the needs of adolescent boys, and men seem to be particularly keen on it because of its physical demands — it’s “macho yoga,” but … as the old soap commercial says, “I like it too!” [youtube

I’ve always enjoyed ashtanga, since I first spent a couple of months learning it at a shala in Palo Alto. I hadn’t heard any of the other myths about it. I was originally attracted by its aerobic challenge, but found the benefits of improving upper body and core strength keep me going back. Few other activities have been so empowering for me, except perhaps one summer job planting trees that also gave me good upper body strength (such that I ended up actually knocking down other women in my self-defense class – oops!). I can’t (yet) “float,” [youtube but Ashtanga does make me feel lighter and move with greater ease. My posture improved, my chiropractor remarked.

When my local yoga studio began to increase their Ashtanga offerings recently, I was excited. To get back into it I took part in a study of the effects of Ashtanga practice held at Downtown Yoga and run by yoga community leader Gina Wasserlein and University of Windsor psychologist Josee Jarry. As many of the participants in the nine-week study were undergraduate psychology students (as is the case for most psychology studies) the class tended to be tuned to the needs and abilities of young women — one teacher to my irritation remarked on all the “skinny girls”. I also find the whole first series and the pressure to practice six days a week a bit daunting. But it was exciting to be part of the research and among so many keen energetic people and I can gain different inspiration from the Jessamy Stanley who defy assumptions about yoga bodies.

My biggest complaints have been that I simply can’t twist like others can. The binds seem unreasonable given my belly. The jump through and floating seem absurd with my hips and butt. When I try to do plough – which used to be a favourite pose – my now substantial middle-aged boobs are squashed to my face and I seem to have some trouble breathing.

One class I had to hold back tears – it had been a bad day generally. I also injured my back pretty badly and it really hurt for a few weeks. Though I had never heard the myth that ashtanga is gymnastics, the tradition may well have been influenced by gymnastics, and it did strike me as yoga calisthenics. That misunderstanding is the reason why I hurt myself. (Remember, I was originally attracted by the aerobic aspect.) I was not focusing on my breath and my bhandas, the keys to strength in yoga;and my teachers (including Tammy Blaze) helped me through that. They also allowed me to see that my perceived breathing troubles may be more about claustrophobia (being trapped by my boobs) than anything else.

Patience and persistence provides part of the mental discipline of yoga. I’ve been glad I can now switch to a Mysore style practice where I follow the sequence of poses on my own, stop where I need to, and push myself where I can.

I’m also learning to trust the practice. Sure I need to adjust and mind my own physical peculiarities. I use a block for some asanas (poses). I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the binds that allow people to move into to the second-half of the first Ashtanga series. However, I’m noticing that the difficulty is less my boobs, belly, and butt than I thought. As my abdominal strength improves, as I work those twists, I can do a lot more on the mat — and everywhere else!

body image · fat

No more headless fatties, why not use images of active fat people complete with heads instead?

It’s time to expand our imagery of the obese.

Not at all fat people are unhappy. And some of us even have heads.

I’m interested in the politics of obesity, both as an ethicist with an interest in medical matters and the health care system, and as a significantly overweight person whose been obese off and on most of my adult life. And as readers of this blog know, I’m interested in the connections between being fat and being fit.

Sometimes I want to use different language–I’m big and strong, not obese (a medical term, based on BMI) but at other times I want people to realize that when they’re talking about obesity I’m part of the story. So too of course are all the Olympic athletes who count as obese.

I hate it when I try to share stories about obesity on social media, the image that almost inevitably appears is one of a headless fat torso. It’s as if there were no fat people, just fat torsos. Or as if no fat person would be willing to have their face associated with their body next to an article about fatness. But that’s just not true.

Along comes Stocky Bodies, a great new take (and pun) on stock photography. There’s loads of great images: fat people riding bikes, doing scuba, making crafts, using computers, and even (gasp) eating.

From their website:

The ‘Stocky Bodies’ image library was created in response to the stigmatised representations of overweight and obese people in the media and popular culture.

Such depictions tend to dehumanise by portraying subjects as headless, slovenly or vulnerable and reinforce stereotypes by presenting subjects as engaged in unhealthy eating practices or sedentary conduct.

Our library of stock photos was created to provide positive and diverse representations of the lived experience of fat that begin to break down the typecasting that heightens weight stigma. This is an important objective as research has strongly associated weight prejudice with widespread social and material inequalities, unfair treatment and heightened body esteem issues.

The photographs for the image library are the outcome of an interdisciplinary project between Dr Lauren Gurrieri of the Griffith Business School and Mr Isaac Brown of the Queensland College of Art. The participants are everyday people who are involved in fat-acceptance communities and keen to see change in the representation of fat bodies.

Our images challenge oversimplified and demeaning representations of weight prejudice by showing subjects engaged in everyday activities, such as bike riding, shopping for fashionable clothes and performing their jobs. The documentary imagery to be shown through the library is a non-stigmatising view of what it is to be fat and live an affirmative life.

‘Stocky Bodies’ is a free resource that can be used by the media, health professionals, social marketers, educators and others.

Thanks KR!

body image · diets · fat · fitness · health · weight loss

Working Out While Fat

Just after I reposted my story of why I left Goodlife Fitness in 2006 two super posts appeared on the problems of working out in public while fat.

The wonderfully titled essay by Lindy West, Hello, Fellow Gym-Goers, Look at My Fat Butt, details how wonderful exercise is but also how awful it is be everyone’s idea of a ‘before’ picture:

The more I exercised, the more I loved it. I felt strong and lean, I had tons of energy, I slept like a brick. But my body didn’t look much different. You’d still see me on the street and read “fat person.” And as a fat person, going to the gym is doubly challenging. There’s the basic challenge we all face—of getting the fuck out of bed, finding a clean sports bra, physically moving your body toward a place where a man will yell at you until you do enough lunges (IT DEFIES ALL EVOLUTIONARY LOGIC)—but for fat people, there’s an even more intimidating challenge on top of that.

It’s entering a building where you know that every person inside is working toward the singular goal of not becoming you.

Do you know how hard it is to walk into a building devoted to not becoming you when you are you!? It’s the worst! I’m me literally every day! “Fat=bad/thin=good” is so seamlessly built into our culture that people I consider close friends don’t hesitate to lament their weight “problems” to me—not stopping to consider that what they’re saying, to my face, is “becoming you is my worst nightmare, and not becoming you is my top priority.”

And Emily Anderson published Fat Acceptance at the Gym Burns More Than Calories at Women’s E-News. It’s an excerpt from her contribution to the anthology “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.”

Being a fat woman at the gym is in itself an act of social disobedience. I shouldn’t be in there, taking up the space of the lithe-bodied, unless it’s with a face of sincere penance and shame. But I have claimed the gym as my own. I celebrate being visible and fat all over the gym–running and sweating and sometimes breaking into song, lifting dumbbells alongside muscle-laden men with uncompleted tribal band bicep tattoos, flinging my weight around in aerobics and finally cooling it poolside in my bright, non-apple-body-shape flattering tankini.

I smile and chat with women before yoga and mention how hungry I always am after class and can’t wait to eat. I want to be seen. I am fat and happy in places where I should be fat and shameful, and denying this stereotype is a political action in my eyes.

You should definitely go read Anderson’s essay to find out about her daring and transgressive act on the elliptical machine.

I loved what both writers had to say, despite my own ambivalence about the word ‘fat’ as it applies to me. Thanks Lindy West and Emily Anderson for your fat pride trail blazing ways. I too hate it when people assume I’m either new to the gym (ha ha ha) or that I must already have lost a lot of weight and then they express admiration that I’ve made it so far. I really do worry about putting fat people off exercise when they think they only reason to do it is to lose weight and then they meet me.

I’ve often thought I’d like to teach a fitness class for big people, one that doesn’t mention weight loss at all. No mention of calories burned or looking good in your skinny jeans. I’m cool with people trying to lose weight–I’m not without goals in that department myself–but my dream class would focus on fitness and moving for fun only. The Y’s fitness instructor certification classes look like they might be fun. And I think I’d have a blast teaching spin classes too. Perhaps I’ll get my certification as part of this ‘fittest at fifty’ project.

Clearly, there’s a need for a spaces without fat shaming. A gym in Vancouver, Body Exchange, set out to create a safe haven for plus size exercisers but it ran into controversy with its plans not accept skinny members.

The Province interviewed Tony Leyland, from Simon Fraser University’s department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, about the plus sized gyms and he was adamant that people not downplay the social value of creating safe places for mothballed bodies.
Leyland also says some bodies are naturally resistant to being lean. Even slightly pudgy people can be terrific athletes, he says. “Fitness trumps a lot of things,” he says. “The evidence is clear that people are really going to benefit from getting fit whether they lose weight or not.”You can read more about it here, Canada’s only plus size fitness company: no skinnies need apply.
I’m still not sure of what I think of a plus size only gym–generally speaking I prefer inclusion to hiding out in safe spaces and I worry that then people would think that’s where you belong, “Get thee to the fat gym”–but I think plus size, healthy at every size inspired classes would be lovely.
fat · fitness · weight lifting · weight loss

Science, exercise, and weight loss: when our bodies scheme against us

I love it (okay, not really, need sarcasm font) when people suggest to me that to lose weight, I should get a bit of exercise, you know, walk more, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. When I tried Weight Watchers for the very last time they gave handy hints like getting off the bus one stop early and walking to your destination. (Um, I ride my bike to work most days. I ride hundreds of kilometers a week, in addition, for fun when the weather is good. How does that fit in?)

Of course, this advice is always from well-meaning people who don’t know me. Those who know me, know that I work out at a variety of sports and physical activities most days of the week, often twice a day. I run, ride my bike, play soccer, lift weights, practice Aikido, and most recently have taken up Crossfit. And yet, I’m very overweight. Fat, big, call it what you will.

How on earth can this be? Newcomers to cycling sometimes say “Oh keep riding the bike and you’ll lose weight,” thinking I’m new too. (I like passing those people, zoom!) Sometimes I’m aware I actually put other fat women off exercise because they are starting to exercise in order to lose weight and then they see me, and think it’s all pointless. But I don’t exercise to lose weight. My experience tells me that, on its own, it doesn’t do very much.

So why doesn’t exercise help with weight loss? (Or to put the question precisely, why doesn’t it help as much as it seems it ought to, when you consider the calories burned in our efforts at fitness?) Given my interests and personality type–geek, academic, fitness buff–I’ve read rather a  lot about this question.

There are a number of different answers.

The first answer is simple and it’s probably that first thing that came to your mind: when we exercise, we eat more. Indeed, if you care about performance and recovery, you need and ought to eat more. I was once told by a cycling coach that it’s foolish to try to lose weight during the racing season. Not eating enough–which is what you need to do to lose weight–cuts your speed and your recovery. Diet in the off season when you’re just riding for fun, he said. Don’t hurt your performance by dieting.

But there’s another answer that I find intriguing. Our bodies’ efforts at maintaining weight are ingenious. It turns out that when we exercise more, we also move less the rest of the day. This isn’t intentional. It isn’t anything we decide to do. The idea is that our bodies decide for us.

I’m interested, and fascinated by, the way our bodies undercut our best efforts. Heavy exercisers, it turns out, often move less the rest of the day and so burn not that many more calories than if they hadn’t exercised at all. When not exercising, they’re chronic sitters!

The study which sets out to prove this is cited in the Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First 20 Minutes  and she writes about it in her New York Times Phys Ed blog too. Following a group of young men assigned to a heavy exercise program, researchers were surprised at how little weight they lost. Yes, they ate more but more surprisingly, “They also were resolutely inactive in the hours outside of exercise, the motion sensors show. When they weren’t working out, they were, for the most part, sitting. “I think they were fatigued,” Mr. Rosenkilde says.”

Some people say we ought to “listen to our bodies.” But in my experience our bodies are sneaky experts at staying the same size. They need to be ready for feasts and famines and those women with extra body fat are more reproductively successful.

It’s another argument in favour of short, sharp, intense Crossfit style workouts since they don’t seem to have this effect. Once again, it’s High Intensity Interval Training (HIT) for the win. Thirty minutes, says Reynolds, is the sweet spot for exercise.

And it’s yet one more argument against sitting.

Some personal observations:

  • In the past I’ve been a big fan of the hard exercise followed by flopping! It’s when I write best, physically exhausted and mentally alert. Without exercise, I’m a big fidgeter and pacer in a career that rewards focus, concentration, and long bouts of sitting. Now I’m working at a standing desk (at home anyway) and I’m liking the change. I’m also trying to incorporate more movement throughout my day. 
  • This puts me in a mind of a discussion members of my bike club used to have about our long Saturday morning rides. Some of us thought we ought to have shorter routes, say 100 km rather than 150 km, not because we couldn’t ride 150 km but rather because we wanted to do things with our families afterwards. The extra kilometers tipped us past the point where much was possible after other than a nap, a bath, and lounging about the house. It seemed all wrong to come home and then tell the kids that I couldn’t go to the park, go for a bike ride (yikes!), or walk the dog because I was too tired from all the bike riding!
  • While exercising itself doesn’t make much difference, changing your body composition does. A body with more muscle burns more calories throughout the day and so there’s good reasons to lift heavy weights. I know lots of women do long, slow cardio to lose weight (you know, the “fat loss” button on the exercise machine at the gym) but science says they ought to be lifting weights instead to get lean.
  • In terms of appetite, I think HIT is right on. Long, slow runs and bike rides make me famished. I can control what I eat after but it takes tremendous effort. Endurance exercise makes me hungry, whereas intense efforts have just the opposite effect.
  • Of course, why listen to a big person talk about exercise and weight loss? The truth is I’m terrific at weight loss. I’ve lost 50-70 lbs quite a few times. I’m a failure at maintaining the new lower weight, but that’s a puzzle for another time.
body image · fat

Fat or big: What’s in a name?

Confession: I’ve got an ambivalent relationship with the label “fat.” I do often claim to be “fit and fat” but I’m never quite sure if “fat” is the word I want. This isn’t because the word makes me ashamed. I’m all about reclaiming labels and I’m a huge fan of some of the blogs that make up the “fatosphere.”

My favourite was Kate Harding’s now defunct Shapely Prose. (If you haven’t read it, it’s worth browsing the archive.) I’m also a tremendous fan of the Healthy at Every Size movement. A terrific recent defense of using the word “fat” is in an essay by Lesley at xojane called, “Fat: Using the Other F Word.” If you want to know why anyone would call themselves “fat,” read Lesley.

Or another favourite, Ragen Chastain, the blogger behind Dances with Fat.

I also recognize that by numbers on the scale/BMI I’m significantly overweight. And I know that some people see me as fat. Others don’t though. I’m most likely to claim the label when some well meaning person within ear shot starts equating being fat with being out of shape, thinking, what exactly, that I’ll agree with them? Sometimes they say “Oh, we don’t mean you. You’re not fat really.” Then I want to remind people that I’m part of the story too.  When we start talking about the statistics, I want in.

So why the ambivalence? Well, I wear size 12 clothes–well within the range of easily available sizes–and I don’t feel particularly fat. The bits of me that have clothes issues relate to muscles and women’s clothing styles: biceps, shoulders, and calves. So I sometimes use the label “fat” but I often feel squeamish about it, as if I don’t really belong in the club.

What’s the alternative? At Aikido the other day I started to notice the vocabulary we have to describe male bodies. We often joke about how much fun it is to throw the “big” guys. Someone commented that I should pay attention to how they roll because they have to do it with more finesse to avoid crashing into the mats. (A mistake I make from time to time. Ouch, sore shoulder.) And the big men are big in different ways. Some are overweight, others are tall, some are extremely muscular such as the power lifter in the club. One of the guys is a Clydesdale weight adventure runner. But there’s no angst in referring to them as “big.”

We have other positive words too. My favourite is “brawny.”  No need for further explanation or apology. They are fun to throw. I’d much rather play Aikido with one of them than with a frail person I’d worry about hurting. Their large bodies feel resilient and strong. Why can’t we feel the same way about big women?

And please don’t get me started on all the cutesy labels women use to avoid the word “fat”: fluffy, chunky, chubby…

So “fat,” I guess. But big suits me better.

By the way, I like “big” in the title of an academic essay on women, sport, and size, for which I was an interview subject. It’s a great article, by Krista Scott Dixon, well worth reading: “Big Girls Don’t Cry: Fitness, Fatness, and the Production of Feminist Knowledge”. Sociology of Sport Journal 25 (2007): 22-47.

Here’s the abstract:  Feminists have produced a number of important critiques of the way in which fat and fit are understood. While fitness provides opportunities for women’s personal and political empowerment, in practice, because fitness is so frequently viewed as a cosmetic project and connected to achieving thinness, such opportunities have generally failed to materialize despite rapid increases in women’s sports and exercise participation. I examine the experiences of larger female athletes in strength and power-based sports to examine how they negotiate their identities as athletes and women, and how they navigate “fitness” and “fatness.”

Photo by Chih Eric Li